More COVID testing offered during schools’ winter break

Vaccinations are the first line of defense against COVID-19, Health Officer William Webb said. Pictured, Webb gets his first dose of a Moderna vaccine in December 2020.

CHESTERTOWN — With a surge in COVID-19 cases due to the new omicron variant and the busy holiday travel season, it’s important to keep yourself and your family safe.

“I am not aware of a sequence confirmed case (of the omicron variant) in Kent County,” Health Officer William Webb said in a phone interview Tuesday. “What I do know from our statewide partners is that the variant is spreading very quickly and in all likelihood is here.”

Webb said the omicron variant is particularly infectious.

While Webb was not aware of any confirmed cases of the omicron variant, he said the “vast majority” of infection over the last month to two months has been the delta variant.

“The delta spiked up quickly, and it looks like the omicron is doing exactly the same thing but is accelerating faster than the delta variant in terms of the spread,” Webb said.

Webb also encourages everyone to get fully vaccinated and those who are fully vaccinated should get the booster.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend the mRNA vaccinations — Pfeizer or Moderna products — over the one-time Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Webb said.

The health department offers vaccinations of every product. Vaccinations are available for those 5 and older. To schedule an appointment, visit the KCHD website.

Boosters can also be mixed and matched, so those who are fully vaccinated with a Moderna vaccine could get a Pfeizer booster, or any combination thereof.

“Those individuals who have received a booster are much better protected than those who have just received the baseline vaccination,” Webb said.

He said it was also important to wear a face mask indoors in public, social distance, use hand sanitizer and continue the safety practices that have been used throughout the pandemic.

While some surgical grade masks are known to work better than cloth masks — and the three-layer surgical masks are what the health department recommends — Webb said anything that covers the mouth and nose and is consistently and correctly used is best.

“If you wear one that’s more comfortable and you do it consistently … please continue to do that,” Webb said.

“Vaccination is the first line of defense, face masks, hand washing and hand sanitizer is the next level of defense and if you have been exposed or you’re symptomatic, get tested and stay at home,” he added.

He encouraged people to minimize the number of large gatherings they are a part of during the holiday season.

“Right now we are seeing a significant surge in cases across the state. In all likelihood, that was a direct result of the Thanksgiving holidays and the omicron variant,” Webb said. “We just don’t want to see an additional surge or increase.

“Our hospitals are almost at capacity at this point statewide and we need to protect that infrastructure because people will get sick with stuff besides COVID-19 and need care,” he added. “If our hospitals become full, that becomes a problem.”

In Kent County, COVID-19 transmission has been “high” for several months.

The last known numbers in Kent County, reported in the Dec. 9 edition of the Kent County News, were 1,923 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 53 confirmed COVID-19-related deaths.

These numbers have not been updated due to network outages at the Maryland Department of Health.

Webb said there currently are five outbreaks in “education institutions.”

In Kent County Public Schools, there were 21 cases of COVID-19 last week, bringing the total to 75 in the 2021-22 academic year, according to the KCPS dashboard.

Due to the increase in cases, the health department will offer testing to anyone on Tuesday, Dec. 28 and Wednesday, Dec. 29 because this is Kent County Public Schools’ winter break.

Typically, the Tuesday and Wednesday testing days are reserved for school-age students and those staff who work local systems.

KCPS’ winter break began yesterday with a half-day dismissal for students and staff.

Testing at the health department will be open to anyone Monday, Dec. 27 through Thursday, Dec. 30. To make an appointment, call 410-778-1350 or 667-303-1070 or visit kenthd.org to self-schedule an appointment.

Webb said the 5- to 11-year-olds demographic has the lowest vaccination rate in Kent County because they were most recently made eligible and the vaccine supply has been somewhat limited.

Across Maryland, school-age children who are eligible for vaccination — those age 5 to 19 — have the lowest vaccination rates.

There have been outbreaks of COVID-19 in schools across the state.

Several school districts in Maryland — including Prince George’s and Baltimore counties — are preparing for virtual learning amid the rise in cases. Others, including Howard County, have cancelled athletics and extracurricular activities until mid-January.

In response to those closures, the Maryland State Department of Education issued a statement announcing that it and the State Board of Education “continue to prioritize safe full-time, in-person instruction with minimal disruptions.

“If a local school system feels that it must temporarily adapt to virtual learning at an individual school or in a targeted manner to keep its school community safe, the flexibility exists for the local school system to do so,” the release states. “Local school systems that need to temporarily close schools for virtual learning will need to immediately and aggressively work to bring students back to in-person normal attendance and learning.”

There have no changes for KCPS, Superintendent Karen Couch said in a phone interview Tuesday.

Among those procedures, masks are required and unvaccinated students who are exposed to COVID-19 while wearing a mask do not have to quarantine. Classrooms and common spaces are also being disinfected daily.

“With the increase uptick of the number of students that are testing positive, we have ramped up our disinfecting of the schools,” Couch said.

Unvaccinated student athletes playing indoor winter sports are required to do test-to-play, meaning they must be tested at least once every 14 days in order to participate. Vaccinated students do not have this testing requirement. Attendance at winter games is also limited due to COVID-19.

Couch said that “a lot” of the COVID-19 that is in the schools is contracted outside of the school setting. She said families self-report that their students contracted COVID-19 while at an event.

“That’s not to say that some of our students are not contracting in our schools, but the vast majority are coming from outside,” she said.

Couch encourages families “to consider becoming vaccinated or obtaining their boosters and making sure they wear their face coverings when they are socializing and outside of the school.”

“We’re very blessed here in Kent County with the folks and how they’ve responded to the pandemic,” Webb said, adding that he hopes people continue to do what they have been to get out of this portion of the pandemic.

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